Business & Policy
Canadian consumers wary of food safety: focus groups
By Ottawa Citizen via OnTrace
The initial story may be nearly a month old but it may interest growers to know that public opinion about food safety in Canada is suspect, according to a focus group study conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
March 06, 2008
Consumer confidence in the safety of Canada's food supply is "moderate and precarious," concludes a study commissioned by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The study, which drew on eight focus group sessions, also found that Canadians are far more worried about the long-term impact of things like pesticides and chemicals in food than they are about traditional concerns such as E. coli and salmonella.
The focus group research was conducted in four cities — Calgary, Toronto, Halifax and Montreal — by the Montreal public opinion firm Les Etudes de Marché Créatec between Nov. 24 and 29. Its report was posted to a government website this week.
Food safety, the study says, was seen by focus group participants as a "highly relevant and important personal issue for Canadian consumers, dominated by questions, doubts, uncertainties and sometimes fears."
The consumer view of food safety in Canada is "favourable, but fragile," the study says. "While the safety of the food supply was thought to fall within acceptable limits, people indicated that anxiety was just below the surface, ready to quickly emerge."
Long-term effects from things like pesticides, chemicals, genetically modified organisms, hormones in meat and dairy products, and lingering worries about mad cow disease are of much greater concern to consumers than foodborne illnesses or food poisoning, the study concludes.
"The traditional concerns about food safety appear to have given place to newer, unknown, long-term and more threatening issues."
Focus group participants expressed "many questions, doubts and uncertainties" about the integrity of food inspectors and the efficiency of the food inspection system.
"Food inspections directly impacted consumer confidence in food, mainly in a negative way," the study says. Doubts about the integrity of inspectors and the system were highest in the food service sector, followed closely by the food industry as a whole.
Overall, consumers had low confidence in imported food, which they view as a "major threat" to the safety of the food supply.
People saw globalization as a cause of declining food quality and associated food imports with third-world countries.
There was also "unanimous concern" about products that use genetically modified organisms because of their unknown cumulative effects on health and on the food supply.
The study says a "high level of anxiety emerged about plastics and food containers — people were puzzled and uncertain about what to do."
Consumers also believe meat and poultry contain "harmful and highly hazardous substances added by the food industry," the study says. "The perceived health risks of meat and poultry were long-term, unknown and scary, while short-term risks were seen as acceptable, for now."
Chemicals, additives and shelf-life extending agents such as preservatives and packaging were perceived as serious health risks, and many questioned the truth of "best before" dates.
Also of concern was the use of calorie-cutting substitutes such as aspartame, which was seen by participants to be a carcinogen.
Food labels were a source of confusion for consumers, the study found. "Often misunderstood, they created frustration and mistrust."
The study advises the government to be proactive in communicating food safety information. "Not doing this and only communicating when there is a problem (i.e. a food alert or recall) gives the impression that the government is reacting and therefore consumer confidence is more at risk."
The Food Inspection Agency will use the study's findings to improve its communications with consumers about food safety, raise awareness of its roles and responsibilities, and inform future public opinion research.